ISAIAH 9: 2,6 AND PSALM 72:1-7
Edward Hicks is a Quaker minister from the 1800’s who is famous for his painting, the Peaceable Kingdom, of which he painted more than 60 versions. You may be familiar with the version that hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It depicts a variety of animals – sheep and wolves, bear and cow, a child and a tiger, as well as others you wouldn’t expect to see hanging out together. He bases these paintings on a familiar passage of scripture from Isaiah 11: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (verse 6) In his paintings, some of the animals, such as the lion and the cheetah have eyes as big as saucers. They appear to be surprised and hocked at finding themselves in such a situation. Who can blame them, this is not in their nature? Hicks painted these from a desire to reflect his central interest, which was a desire for peaceful unity between factions and a redeemed soul. This theme of peace represents one of his theological beliefs as a Quaker.Hicks longed for a breaking down of barriers that create division and discord.
But is peace such as is depicted in the Peaceable Kingdom paintings really possible? When we call Jesus the Prince of Peace, do we mean that he is some sort of supernatural zookeeper or do we really mean something else? It might be helpful for us to start by looking at the Hebrew word for peace: Shalom, and its intended use in describing the “Prince of Peace.”Shalom describes not only an absence of hostility, but something more. It is a complex word that encompasses the welfare of the people, safety from war,friendship, contentment, peace. When it is applied to those in leadership –such as a king or president, it includes the expectation that the general prosperity of all the people will be considered, that the practice of justice and righteousness for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed will be included. Shalom is not just for the powerful and wealthy.
The passage we heard read this morning (Becky) from Psalm 72, was written for King Solomon, whose name is a play on the word “Shalom”. It describes a king who judges the people with righteousness and who grants justice to the poor; a king who works for the prosperity of the people. The name, Solomon is ironic, however, for his reign was not shalom for all people but was heavy-handed. His policies were coercive and relied upon exploiting the poor to carry out some of his plans. His style of governance left out any serious chance for genuine shalom in his realm.Throughout history, those in power have grandly promised peace, but it is often just political rhetoric. Nation is still armed against nation (we constantly hear about those in conflict in the middle east and elsewhere), the poor are still exploited (how can we not be shocked by the resent death of the 7 year old immigrant), justice is still slow to come (attitudes), peace of this sort is still beyond our reach.
So what is it about Jesus that permits him to be called the Prince of Peace? How is his reign different from that of Solomon, and others throughout history, including present day? What is different? Right away, it seems as though his “reign” is somewhat of a contradiction. For even though we (say/acknowledge) that Jesus is from the royal line of David, and angels announce this royal birth as one of peace, Jesus does not fit our typical understanding of royalty. Think about this – a traditional “Prince of Peace” in the Roman Empire, or any empire for that matter, including the U.S. Empire – would be a victor who would impose peace, seize the weapons of anyone defeated and rule in such a way that any insurrection would be quickly put down. The peace that Jesus offers, this peace that passes all human understanding and that defies all ordinary expectations is a peace that is shaped, not in power, but in vulnerability. It does not seek to impose its own way. Walter Brueggemann, seminary professor and author shares this. The ministry of Jesus, with its stories of miraculous transformations,concerns the restoration of the healthy order of creation. Each of the individual acts Jesus performs, goes behind and beyond the expected. In his blessing as he dismisses transformed persons, the utterance of “shalom” or“peace” is much more than a polite word. It is recognition that the shalom-order of creation has, in this particular case, been restored. Thus with the forgiveness of the “sinful woman,” Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you;go in peace.” (Luke 7:50) With the woman who could not get help from doctors,whom he healed, Jesus offers the same blessing, “your faith has made you well;go in peace.” (Luke 8:48) This is not an imposed peace, or a military peace but is specific, personal, beyond conventional ideas of peace. One that is concerned with the shalom, the well-being, the friendship, the welfare (the non-exploitation) of another. It is a subversive peace.
Here’s another way to think about it. Anyone here a Star Wars fan? Okay, well in the Star Wars epic, The Empire Strikes Back – the oppressive Galactic Empire has gained control of the galaxy under the leadership of (evil) Darth Vader (one of our favorite bad guys). The “good guys” the rebels Alliance has been driven into hiding. The Empire, as victor, has imposed their sort of peace through violence,oppression, and suppression. The Rebel Alliance knows there is a better way for all people that involves a true peace in which equality, care for others, and respect is important. They can not openly attack the Empire – they wouldn’t stand a chance. Instead, they must be subversive, making alliances with other like-minded, peace-desiring individuals and by introducing good versus evil,subversively making headway against the empire.
In Jesus’subversive strategy for peace, several things emerge, each one a blow against the empire as we know it. In Christ, we see a readiness to share generously, a willingness to ignore the strict social classes found in society leading to an acceptance of all people. An Attentiveness to the needs of the vulnerable.Humility in the face of those who would exalt themselves, a willingness to be last among those who insist on being first; even denying self in the interest of the neighbor, and a capacity to forgive. These are all practices that marked Christ’s presence and version of peace in his society and they are practices that mark Christians seeking peace in our society. Each of these contradicts the conventional assumptions of the empire. In the empire there is no attitude of generous sharing (what can I acquire for myself), no forgiveness, no humility, no willingness to be last in a world of aggressive firstness (traffic on SR 54), no denial of self. In its refusal of those things that make for peace, we find a society of hostility, aggression, greed, conflict, and violence. A world that is not at peace.
But, just because the world is not at peace, just because we cannot achieve the peaceable kingdom.does that mean that we cannot be at peace ourselves? Does this mean we cannot be agents of peace? Of course not, we can be peacemakers in the kingdom by the way we think and live. We can follow Christ’s example and actively participate in the peace in the world. Kind of like forming our own rebel alliance, we can subversively make headway against the empire. We can be agents of change by following the model set by the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.
By being forgiving, understanding that none of us is perfect.
– by sharing generously (I see this all the time here!)
-by breaking through those things that divide us.
– by being aware of and attending to the needs of the vulnerable
– by showing humility, especially in the face of those who lord it over us
– by being last in a world of aggressive firstness.
– by denying yourself for the sake of your neighbor.
By introducing good versus evil, and introducing peace in your own little realm. As we focus on the Prince of Peace and his standards/qualities, actions, as we seek to live in his light and his empire, we find that we can experience peace and joy in full measure, when we are ruled by the Prince of Peace whose peace is beyond understanding. Amen.